Their Eyes Were Watching God

When, at sixteen, Janie is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before she meets the man of her dreams – who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds.


“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

I have been meaning to pick up Their Eyes Were Watching God since I read Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness a few years back. Janet wrote of the book with so much love – and I wanted feel closer to Janet/continue to live inside of her brain, so I determined I would read it too so it could be like something we shared (does anyone understand what I mean by this?). It took me a few years, but, like most things, I finally got around to it. And let me tell you, there’s a reason people have such strong feelings about Zora Neale Hurston.

It’s really hard to use the words ‘women’s empowerment’ without cringing, but I’m going to ask that you allow me to do so here. Because Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex and nuanced look at how one Black woman, Janie, empowers herself in 1930s America. In fact, I think we should remove the cringe factor altogether. We still live in a world where women’s empowerment is a political conversation – albeit one that has been hijacked by a very white, #GirlBoss style of feminism that is much more about buying things than changing things. But, when stripped of its corruption by capitalism, it is a political conversation still.

I digress.

Janie’s story takes her through three husbands: Logan, a much older man Janie’s grandmother marries her off to because she believes it’ll give her her best chance – he’s rich; Jody, another older smooth talker Janie runs off with at the first opportunity; and, finally Teacake, the man who ends up being pretty much the love of her life.

I am deeply resistant to the idea of a woman’s empowerment being wrapped up in a man – as anyone who has ever read a review of mine may have picked up on… – so the structure of Janie’s story as one completely bound up in the men she was in relationship with challenged me, but, I think, ultimately showed me something I hadn’t really considered before.

Her first husband, and her second husband even more so, thought of Janie – young, beautiful – as a symbol of their own success. In the all-Black community of Eatonville, the town where she and Jody live together they are basically the ultimate power couple, owners of the General Store that is the centre of the town’s community, and eventually mayor and – I guess? – mayoress. But Jody is deeply controlling, and won’t allow Janie to participate in the town’s community – he barely even lets her to speak to people. He wants only to hold her up like a trophy, another of his achievements.

In a lot of ways this is what women are taught to want, right? It certainly seems like an enviable position to a lot of other women in Janie’s orbit. But it denies her freedom and agency; she is just another of those caged birds, cut off.

She was borned in slavery when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she tol me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

When Teacake, a much younger man, comes along, he offers Janie everything she’s never had before. Fun, music, vitality, and actual love, the sort of active give and take that has very little to do with the alienating idolatry Janie has experienced before. This is not to say their relationship is perfect – it is in many episodes deeply problematic. Teacake often spends Janie’s money without asking, and there is sometimes violence in their relationship – but despite all this he is the man that Janie has chosen for herself. And it is that choice that represents such a turning point for Janie. She steps down off of the high chair and into her life. It’s a complicated life, with a guy we might not have chosen for her, but it is finally her own. As Zadie Smith writes in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition: “the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches far beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.”

As you will note from the quotes I have chosen, this book includes a mix of omniscient narrator, written in standard English and speech written in dialect. Dialect puts a lot of people off, but it really needn’t. It takes a minute, but you tune in – and once you do the voices leap off the page. Or as Zadie puts it in her gorgeous intro,“her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all.”

I note this mostly because I know dialect scares a lot of people away – might have scared me away if I had realised what I was getting myself into – but it really needn’t. Trust me.

Janie’s story is one you need to read.

To Kill A Mockingbird

The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one that makes you think.’ – Harper Lee

The internet is home to many quotes of questionable authenticity, but whether accurate or not, these words speak to my experience of reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

mockingbird

The book, for anyone who doesn’t know – the small few who, like me, didn’t read this one during high school – is about a lawyer, Atticus Finch, defending a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman. In the small southern town of Maycomb in the 1930s, this is a huge deal. The story is told from the perspective of Scout, Atticus’ young daughter, as she and her older brother, Jem navigate the implications of their father’s work as well as the deep rooted race and class prejudices in their small town.

This book utterly overwhelmed me. In a political climate so full of fear and anger and a personal one dominated by cluelessness, Lee’s treatise on acceptance, empathy and love was exactly what I needed. It broke my heart open in the best possible way.

To read about society’s failings – racism, classism, sexism, from the perspective of a child, was so much more effective than I ever thought that it could be. It meant that we saw events, but were detached from them – rather than getting caught up in the anger and resentment we were allowed to see it all as senseless and ridiculous. There is a heart breaking exchange between Scout and Jem, when Jem tells Scout about the categories that people fit into. Scout thinks the idea of categories is stupid, and tells him so. Folks is folks, in her opinion. Jem’s response? He thought the same, until he grew up. As I progressed through the novel I became increasingly protective of Scout’s sense of self. She had it so right at such a young age. The idea of that getting corrupted pained me. It pained Atticus, too.

As the reader, I often understood what Scout was saying before she did. Sometimes I felt sadness she wasn’t yet grown up enough to comprehend. When you’re young and living the sort of life Scout had, it doesn’t occur to you to think that the world is anything less than good. Then you grow up, and the dark corners you never even used to notice appear.

Scout was lucky because she could go home and talk to her dad about it. Speaking of, let me just take a moment to crown Atticus Finch King of the Literary Dads. Everything he says is a quotable life lesson and he lives according to his words. Atticus is the sort of person you should channel when you’re commuting to work. I find in my life, that’s the hardest time of day to be a good person.

Atticus believes in the innate goodness of people, even when it is so clouded with fear that it no longer appears to exist. He believes in doing the right thing. He believes in starting even when you know in your heart you will fail. That is true bravery, as far as he is concerned. He wants more than anything for his children to grow up free from the prejudices that separate his community. For those of us who may be dealing with deadbeat dad issues, reading Atticus at times feels a little bit like you’re stepping on a nail on purpose, but it’s totally worth it. This book helps you crawl out of your own skin for a while and see your life in terms of something much bigger.

More than anything, Atticus Finch and his children inspired me to be better. They reminded me that living in a crappy world doesn’t mean you have to be a crappy person.

“’… an’, Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice…’

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.’”

There is no way I can do this beautiful book justice. Just go read it.